Who am I and why am I here? The straightforward questions, Pablo Neruda said, are the toughest. Tougher, as we mark one year of the pandemic. The pain and suffering around the world and in our country has brought us closer to a specific human value — the spirit of service. In a world where profit and loss decide human interaction, it was the essence of service, the doctor and the nurse, the delivery person, the storekeeper, all risking their lives to help ease ours, that touched every one across the world, even in the most powerful of nations. Service and only service stirred our souls.
The French designer Coco Chanel said, “the best things in life are free. The second-best things are very expensive.” Apart from water, sunlight and air, during the pandemic, we came closer to the human value of selfless service. It prepared us to relate, to forge a solidarity with others. The pandemic has, therefore, defined the texture of a human relationship in terms of service and connection. But the nature of that connection has a history.
The great writer, Mulk Raj Anand, once came to meet Mahatma Gandhi at Sabarmati Ashram. His purpose was to get insights from the Mahatma on the condition of untouchables which could inform the book he was working on. Scheduled to return to London, he became impatient when even after a few days at the ashram, he was not able to collect the kernels of wisdom he had come for. Finally, Bapu advised him to stay a few days more and get involved in cleaning the ashram. Anand got busy in dusting activities and, subsequently, saw the light. “I can tell younger novelists that Gandhi cured me … by asking me not to put my own Bloomsbury intellectualism into the mind of a sweeper,” he wrote.
This sense of service as key to the human relationship got sharply defined during the pandemic. To care and serve somebody without any prejudice or immediate interest became the calling card of compassion. The values of interpersonal relationships, community bonding and intrapersonal relationships emerged larger than life. Swami Vivekananda affirmed that “if one wants to find God, serve man. To reach Narayana, one must serve the Daridra Narayan.”
Here, Daridra Narayan would mean those fighting the COVID-19 virus in critical care or those who succumbed to it, those who had to care for their loved ones. The day and night became a battle for the survival of humanity itself. Professionals, from frontline workers to vaccine researchers, emerged to serve in the middle of a crisis. They proved that one can live individually but survival needs the collective spirit. This wasn’t the case before the pandemic. Between customer — the customer is god or king — service and selfless service, we liked to read balance sheets and work out the margin of profit. Selfless service wasn’t a natural choice. Many of us have worked with countless people all our lives, but most of us will find it a challenge to pick four to five persons whom we have served selflessly.
The psychologist Carol Gilligan’s experiments underline how care constructs relationships. We have been participants and observers in this experiment for the last one year. The corona warriors, masked and kitted, erased their identities of class, caste or any religious divide. Their fragility and courage assuaged our own fears and made us more empathetic. When our neighbours are in distress, when we ourselves are on the edge of the precipice, it’s care that binds us all.
But what after vaccination? What after the COVID-19 curve has flattened, when the lockdown is over? Will we still remember what our fears and our anxieties were? Will we look at the corona warrior with the same awe and respect? Will we wonder who we are and why we are here? Way back in 1885, Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee said that India is a nation in the making. The last year was a part of that making. Will the values of citizenship change once we don’t need the mask? All we have is the vaccine of hope.
The writer is the author of Being Good and Aaiye, Insaan Banaen. He teaches courses on and offers training in ethics, values and behaviour